What would happen if we stopped constantly lifting our eyes to the next target?
My dream was to write one book. A real, published book. For years, that was my vision of success.
It took a long apprenticeship, but it happened. I sold my first book at age 25. And then, almost immediately, it became clear in my mind that — you know what? — real success is writing a bestselling book. Before I could pin up the first newspaper clipping about my debut title, I started writing a proposal for my next one.
I wanted to be a millionaire. Did it. I wanted to buy my own home. Did that, too. Then, when I found my dream house, I remember thinking, “If I can just get this, I’ll have everything I want.”A year later, I was ripping out the floors and remodeling the whole thing because I craved something better.
Looking back, it’s hard to say whether the proper response to all this is pride or exhaustion.
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig tells us, “History relates no instance in which a conqueror has been surfeited with conquests.” The human mind, our drive to acquire, is insidious, moving the goalpost as soon as we approach it — or sometimes before we’ve even seen it.
Evolutionarily, this makes sense. Humans have always pushed for more. It’s how our species soldiers on. But is ceaseless yearning the path to happiness? Is it a necessity for creating great work? I’m not so sure.
The writers Kurt Vonnegut (Slaughterhouse Five) and Joseph Heller (Catch-22) were at a glamorous party outside New York City. Standing in the palatial second home of the billionaire host, Vonnegut began to needle his friend. He described the exchange in a poem published in the New Yorker in 2005:
I said, “Joe, how does it make you feel
to know that our host only yesterday
may have made more money than your novel Catch-22
has earned in its entire history?”
And Joe said, “I’ve got something he can never have.”
And I said, “What on earth could that be, Joe?”
And Joe said, “The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”
God, that’s beautiful. And so elusive.
We look at successful people and think they must be happy. They must feel so good about themselves, what they’ve accomplished, what they have. Of course, it’s not remotely true. Most of them — like most of us — are eaten up by all they still have to do. By how much better other people have it.
Growing up, Tiger Woods thought of “enough” as the “e-word” — like it was an expletive, something only losers would settle for. As a champion golfer, he feared the void that would form if he no longer had the game, or more honestly, if he wasn’t dominating the game. So he played through injuries and against doctors’ orders, doing serious damage to his body that dogs him to this day.
Now compare that to the stillness that comes from a sense of “enough.” No relentless wanting. No insecurity of comparison. No need to do, do, do.
Naturally, there is some worry this contentment will be the end of our careers — that if we somehow satisfy our urge to acquire and improve, all progress in our work and in our lives will come to a screeching halt. If everyone felt good, why would they keep trying so hard?
I’m not sure it’s that simple. Did insecurity and discontent help me produce my best work? No, those two things are what pushed me to keep signing contracts and putting myself under increasingly impossible workloads. But the work itself has always come from a place of love and stillness. So that’s what really matters, and that is the driving engine to tend to.
The facts show that it’s perfectly possible to do good work from a good place. You can be healthy and still be successful. Heller believed he had enough, but he kept writing anyway. He wrote six novels after Catch-22, including a bestseller. He taught. He wrote plays and movies.
No one achieves excellence without a desire to get better, without a tendency to explore potential areas of improvement. Yet, when it becomes insatiable, the desire for more is often at odds with happiness. How can you enjoy what you’re doing if all you’re thinking about is how much better you can do or the people who have already eclipsed you?
I’m not just talking about personal happiness. How much better are we at our work when we are focused and present? When we aren’t constantly lifting our eyes to the next target?
You will never feel okay by way of external accomplishments. Money. Fame. Even respect. Piles and piles of it will never make a person feel content. Having enough comes from the inside. It comes from seeing yourself and your work differently, from knowing that more is not the answer. “When you realize there is nothing lacking,” Lao Tzu says, “the whole world belongs to you.” If you can embrace this, you’ll be richer than any billionaire. You may do less, but you’ll have so much more.